|Sarah peeks under the pool cover.|
|If you make your inflatable bed...|
|Marat: cherub slain by a maiden|
First, Mr. Maecenas (70 BC – 8 BC), a very wealthy, connected Roman politico and “munificent patron of literature,” referenced early in the text as a member of an alliterative triumvirate of lucre ("Midas and Morgan and Maecenas"), is credited as having built the first heated swimming pool. Jay Gatsby died in his own fabulous marble pool, so naturally we look back to the origins of chlorinated currents.
Not all deaths by water invoke peace, nor do they involve drowning. Some are in fact fearsome and violent. Along with the shooting of Gatsby, we recall the stabbings of Marion Crane while showering in the Bates Motel (in the 1960 movie Psycho), and Jean-Paul Marat while reading in his bathtub (memorialized in Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting, “La Mort de Marat”).
Hitchcock, with his frantic pace and varied perspectives (cut to Face! cut to knife against torso! cut to silhouetted slasher!), dialed up the victim’s fear and vulnerability—to such an extent that one poll named this the “most nail-biting moment of all-time” in cinema. This death and its ensuing prolonged, clinical clean-up, deprive the criminal Marion Crane of the rebirth or spiritual comfort she may have desired. IMDB.com writes, “She goes to her room and takes a shower, which feels to her like absolution. But it’s too late for that.”
David, in contrast, glorified Marat the victim, whose draped, languid posture and cherubic smile suggest not fear but stoic heroism, even though his death was sudden and at the hands of a stranger, Charlotte Corday. The painter, who had visited Marat just the day before, assigns him a rebirth, according to the Web Gallery of Art:
“…the most striking element is the arm hanging down lifeless. Thus David has unobtrusively taken over the central image of martyrdom in Christianity to his image of Marat. Revolutionary and anti-religious as the painting of this period claimed to be, it is evident here that it very often had recourse to the iconography and pictorial vocabulary of the religious art of the past.”
The novelist is neither a movie director nor a painter. Fitzgerald gives us a kill without the hysteria and immediacy of Hitchcock, and without the sensual adoration of David. We experience the scene in the past tense through Nick’s eyes, memory and pacing. There is the unraveling of the lies in the wake of the accident, the build-up of Wilson’s unhinging and revenge wish, and Nick’s measured but charged vocabulary (“the holocaust was complete”) after finding George Wilson’s body.
Fitzgerald displays a painterly technique throughout his masterpiece, most obviously through his use of color (white, yellow, green, etc.). In the final image of Gatsby, the slain hero slowly rotates on his mattress as blood traces a circle around him “like the leg of transit.” Nick had circled his train schedule before rushing out to the mansion, foreshadowing this symbolic circling.
As the body turns, we gaze at the water and contemplate related classical imagery. The Mythical Creatures Guide cites Walter Burkert: “The idea that rivers are gods and springs divine nymphs is deeply rooted not only in poetry but in belief and ritual; the worship of these deities is limited only by the fact that they are inseparably identified with a specific locality.” The guide adds, “Nymphs are personifications of the creative and fostering activities of nature, most often identified with the life-giving outflow of springs.”
“A water-nymph was just rising from the fair-flowing spring; and the boy she perceived close at hand with the rosy flush of his beauty and sweet grace. For the full moon beaming from the sky smote him. And Cypris made her heart faint, and in her confusion she could scarcely gather her spirit back to her. But as soon as he dipped the pitcher in the stream, leaning to one side, and the brimming water rang loud as it poured against the sounding bronze, straightway she laid her left arm above upon his neck yearning to kiss his tender mouth; and with her right hand she drew down his elbow, and plunged him into the midst of the eddy.”Sweet terror in this death by water! John William Waterhouse captured the boy’s defenselessness in his 1896 painting, Hylas and the Nymphs, which Ezra Pound called, “Foreboding in the Pool.” By calming the waters and cloning six more fair nymphs, Waterhouse accentuated the erotic allure of the event.
Like the springs of yore, the modern swimming pool has been at times linked with the energy and force of female libido. This is unforgettably demonstrated in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard.
The 2003 French film, Swimming Pool, took a few more explicit laps with the motif of an Older Woman and Her Pool. Sarah Morton, a successful English writer, opts to spend a summer at her publisher’s desirable country house in France. When Sarah arrives, the pool is covered with tarp and littered with leaves, and her character’s Dowdy and Uptight Index is at record highs.
“I’m utilizing the swimming pool for its plasticine quality and also for its enclosed and confining aspect. Contrary to the ocean, a pool is something that you can manipulate. The swimming pool is Julie’s space. The pool is like a cinema screen on which you project things and through which a character enters. It takes a long time before Sarah Morton gets into the swimming pool. She can do it only when Julie becomes her inspiration, and only when the pool is finally clean.”
Ah, existential emptiness depicted by a young man floating on a mattress in a plasticine pool—we would be talking now about the 1967 movie The Graduate, right? Incidentally, “plasticine” derives from “plastic,” recalling Mr. McGuire’s one-word career advice for Benjamin Braddock.
Tim Dirks describes Benjamin Braddock as he idles away his summer in both his parent’s pool and in the bedroom with Mrs. Robinson, and he explains how the director Mike Nichols made sure the viewer sees the parallel: